5 min

Going down

Learning to scuba dive with gay teachers

THE NEXT GAY SPORT? Vancouver-area waters offer giant octopuses and passive six-gill sharks that draw scuba divers from around the world. Now a group, led by gay diving instructors Rusty Whitford and Ryan De luca,has formed to offer lessons, socials and trips to gays and lesbians who want to explore the watery realm. Credit: Xtra West files

An entire generation of moviegoers have been completely terrorized by the film Jaws. That 1975 horror-slasher cinematic marvel that tapped into the most primal of human fears-what lurks beneath the apparent calm of the water beyond the beach-has kept many of us out of the swimming pool, let alone the untamed sea.

So when it was suggested I take part in a scuba diving course I could almost hear the soundtrack playing-Dum Dum Dum Dum-and see that great fin skimming the surface.

Of course, that was an over-reaction. But you still have to wonder why scuba diving isn’t one of the most popular sports among Vancouver’s gays and lesbians. After all, BC is known as one of the best places to scuba dive in the world-the waters right off Vancouver included.

Rodale’s, a scuba diving magazine, recently rated BC as the number one dive destination in North America for top value, marine life, shore diving and healthiest marine environment. They call it the “Emerald Sea.” With an abundance of coastline, along with sunken warships dotted along the coast for wreck diving, it seems a shame not to explore these famous depths.

Enter the newest queer sports group in town, the BC Pacific Explorers Scuba Club. They’re young, energetic and enthusiastic about their chosen sport. Even better, they’re making it easy for gays and lesbians to learn to dive and to continue diving after certification. Pacific Explorers offer a certified trained scuba diving instructor to steer you through the course and into the waiting water. The open water diving course, which nets you one night and two full days of instruction in the pool for under $300, gets you used to wearing the gear and breathing through a foreign device. You build confidence.

I’m still a little shaky about the idea.

Reading up on what’s in store for scuba divers along BC’s coast doesn’t do much to assuage my fear: gigantic octopus, 12-foot long lingcod, horrendous-looking wolf eels, harbour seals, sea lions and jellyfish are commonplace in these cold waters. But sharks are rare at Whytecliff Park, one of the dive destinations mentioned in the course, so it seems like reason enough to give it a fair shake.

Besides, I get to start out in the safety, security-and warm water-of a swimming pool. Rusty Whitford, one of the gay club’s founders, says pools are the best place to learn.

“Some people come in with a fear of claustrophobia,” he says. “What they may not understand is that the lessons are in a clear, warm pool and your confidence builds. That first breath is the weirdest feeling but you’re in a controlled environment that is heated. You don’t need to know anything about scuba in order to learn how.”

There are only a handful of us for the course (me and four boys); classes are kept to a maximum of eight people. We start off at an indoor pool in Langley owned by Great Pacific Diving Company’s owner, James Hollis. He offers his digs to us for our first couple of lessons. Hollis employs Ryan De Luca, a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer, in his shop in Surrey. De Luca moved here just last summer and founded the queer diving club with Whitford.

In fact, Whitford and De Luca met by way of scuba diving. Their on-line profiles mentioned their shared passion, they started e-mailing each other and love blossomed. De Luca packed up his life in Toronto and hit Vancouver with flyers announcing the club’s birth in time for last year’s Pride. Their first social event at the Oasis last November brought scores of avid divers looking to hook up with others and wannabes who wanted to learn how to go down.

David Hewitson was one of those wannabes. He dreamed of quietly enjoying the underwater scenery for longer periods than his hobby of snorkelling allowed.

Hewitson joins the beginner’s course with me and that first weekend goes by in a blur of coursework quizzes and underwater skill training. It’s learning through fun and games-pivoting on the tips of your fins or entering the water laden with the heavy gear. Still, it’s the constant checking and rechecking of equipment that’s hammered into your head those first few days. Because when you’re out in the cold water, 35 feet below the surface and with low visibility, your equipment-and your buddy-could mean the difference between life or death.

Bright sunshine glints off the gentle surf at Whytecliff Park in Horseshoe Bay the following Saturday morning. I had hoped to look a bit like Lara Croft in black rubber but instead more resembled a black-wrapped tube steak. Diving had taken on a bit of a sexy fantasy-you get to go down with a buddy and wear wet neoprene in the daylight. However, I can assure you that once encased from head to foot in smelly not-quite-dry rental wet suits, the sexiness is sucked right out of you. Indeed the most sensuality I could muster was when I peed in my wetsuit and that warmth was the best gift my body could give.

Though it was painfully cold, the views at 30 feet below are stunning. Coral, anemones swaying around rocks, starfish larger than dinner plates and 50 feet of visibility take the edge off the fear. Having had hours of preparation in the pool, I had confidence in my ability to dive safely, manage my air, and assist a buddy should problems arise.

Hewitson says that in addition to the super cool experience of the saltwater, the pool training and guidance made all the difference in the overall experience.

“No one was made to feel uncomfortable or felt any pressure,” he says. “Ryan was extremely professional and never made anyone feel that they were holding up the rest of the class. It was never ‘do or die’ with the rest of the group. You were taken aside and given individual attention if you were having problems with a skill.”

Sunday we pack up the gear and head to Coopers Green Park in Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast. Today it’s only Hewitson and me, along with De Luca-and harbour seals that tease us as we start our descent. The weekend before, De Luca tells me, the seals were tugging at the fins of students, wanting to play.

This day allows for more time to explore what lives among the rocks after going through all the skills we need to perform in order to pass the course. Crabs, a flounder and some starfish are, thankfully, the largest life forms we find. De Luca tells us that we can go to Hornby Island this coming summer to see the world-famous passive six-gilled sharks.

That could take some prodding, in my case.

By 4 pm we’ve passed the course and can now go diving anywhere in the world. The Caribbean seems the logical choice for my next dive in a wetsuit. I’m going to take the dry-suit course before becoming a regular diver in our colder water.

De Luca, who spent years in university studying forensic anthropology before switching career paths, seems just as thrilled as we are that we’re now certified divers.

“I remember that first time I was underwater in Australia,” he says. “Every time I work with new students I see it in their eyes. That excitement and the thrill and I get to live that moment once again. I’ll never get rich in the dive industry. I do it because I love it. I’d rather live paycheque to paycheque because I love what I’m doing.”

De Luca and Whitford plan to offer open-water scuba courses every few months; an advance course starts in April. They have regular socials-both in the water and out-and hope to offer club members a chance to dive in a tropical locale next year.

Sharks or no sharks, count me in.

Courses, socials, dive trips.